Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys, even when they perform worse on standardized tests?

In a new study, researchers at the University of Georgia and Columbia University postulate that it’s because of their classroom behavior and approach to learning — which may lead teachers to give girls higher grades than boys.

“The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,’” said Christopher Cornwell, Ph.D., head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors.

The researchers say that “approaches to learning” is a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is. It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization.

“I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.”

The study analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in reading, math and science, linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of the students’ progress.

The study shows that gender disparities in grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys’ grades are lower than where their test scores would predict, according to the researchers.

They attribute this to what they call non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.”

This difference in grading can have long-term effects, according to the researchers.

“The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades,” Cornwell said.

“This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities. It’s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”

The researcher notes that it is unclear how to combat the discrepancy.

“The most common question we’ve gotten is whether or not the gender of the teacher matters in regards to grading students,” Cornwell said.

“But that’s a question we can’t answer because there’s just not enough data available. As you can probably guess, the great majority of elementary school teachers are women.”

The study was published in the Journal of Human Resources.

Source: The University of Georgia

Young girl in classroom photo by shutterstock.